Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story Movie Poster Image
Shocking, tragic docu on first openly gay soccer player.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 80 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Historical footage shows shocking displays of racism and homophobia from elected officials and entertainers from the 1960s-1980s. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

While he struggled with abandonment issues after his mother left him and his brother to an adoptive white family, Justin Fashanu rose above and became a popular professional soccer player even as he endured racism; however, he was unable to overcome the homophobia of 1980s Britain, and as his popularity faded, he sank lower and lower, eventually being accused of sexually assaulting a teen boy. Justin's brother, John, while expressing some remorse, was unsympathetic to Justin's sexual orientation and treated him as a rival. 

Violence

Talk of Fashanu's sexual assault of a teen boy. Mention of Fashanu's suicide. 

Sex

Talk of how Fashanu used "rent boys," or male prostitutes. Mention of how scandals broke out in England in which tabloids revealed that many politicians were having homosexual affairs. 

Language

There's footage of Eddie Murphy in the early 1980s performing an extremely homophobic stand-up routine in which he makes fun of the spread of AIDS. Conservative British politicians such as Margaret Thatcher are shown railing against homosexuality and the gay rights movement. "F--k" used infrequently. "Poof" used (British slang term for homosexual men). Outdated terms for people of color such as "colored." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some drinking in pubs. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story is a 2017 documentary about the first professional soccer player to come out as gay while still playing the sport. The movie talks frankly about the racism Fashanu endured while growing up with his younger brother as children of color in a white family in an entirely white village amid the backdrop of extreme racial tensions in the UK of the 1960s and '70s. It shows some shocking displays of homophobia in the 1980s, including a comedy routine by Eddie Murphy centered on the spread of AIDS by homosexual men, and various British politicians condemning homosexuals and homosexuality as an affront to "traditional values." Despite being the first pro soccer player to come out as gay, Fashanu isn't a hero by any means, and his story is a tragedy. While initially a phenomenal player admired by millions and signing what was at the time a huge contract, Fashanu clung to his fame by any means necessary. He engaged in a variety of increasingly odd publicity stunts as his career waned, was known to consort with "rent boys," or male prostitutes, and at the end of his life, stood accused of sexually assaulting a teenage boy while he was a soccer coach in Baltimore; he then committed suicide. This documentary is an eye-opening look at how extremely homophobic so much of society was just decades ago, and the tragic impact it had on the life and death of a gifted athlete. 

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What's the story?

As a child, Justin Fashanu and his brother, John -- of Nigerian descent -- were given by their mother to be raised by a kindly white family in a small village in England that was entirely white, setting the scene for FORBIDDEN GAMES: THE JUSTIN FASHANU STORY. This was in the 1960s and '70s, amid extreme racial tensions in the United Kingdom. Contending with abandonment issues along with racism, both Justin and John found a way to rise above their circumstances by developing their considerable talents for soccer. Both eventually went pro. Justin's star shone the brightest at first: He was a player whose dramatic game-winning goals earned him what was then a high 1-million-pound contract. Fame went to Justin's head, and he lived a flashy lifestyle while his play on the field declined, and the rumors started swirling that he was gay. As Justin's career sank, John's rose, and their relationship took a turn for the worse when Justin put the rumors to rest by coming out as gay after being paid by a tabloid to do so. Justin's coming out, at a time when homophobia loomed large in society and was publicly proclaimed by conservative politicians as an affront to traditional values, didn't endear him to coaches, players, and fans by any stretch. As he continued to struggle with his sexual orientation -- turning to Christianity, trying to lead the media to believe that he was having an affair with a popular female tabloid model -- Fashanu went from team to team, trying to make a go of it as a player in Canada before trying to start a new life in Baltimore as a soccer coach. It was in Baltimore where Fashanu was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy -- of drugging him in his apartment and trying to perform oral sex on him while he was passed out. Horrified of facing the consequences of this accusation, Fashanu committed suicide at the age of 37. 

Is it any good?

This documentary is a nuanced, warts-and-all documentary on the first "footballer" to come out as gay. Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story does a masterful job at presenting the complexities inside and outside Fashanu's life. Fashanu overcame abandonment issues when his mother put him and his brother up for adoption, and found in soccer a way to overcome the extreme racial tensions in the UK during the 1960s and '70s. His star rose quickly, and as he compiled legendary game-winning goals, he signed what was at the time a lucrative contract for 1 million pounds. But this documentary also paints the portrait of a troubled man desperate for fame who lived a flashy lifestyle and, while the first "out" gay professional soccer player, only did it when a tabloid offered him money to do so. It shows a man who consorted with male prostitutes, had scandalous affairs with conservative politicians, and was eventually accused of sexually assaulting a teenage boy before committing suicide, in part, to avoid trial and possible jail time. 

What is especially incredible and shocking about this documentary is the way it uses the historical context of the times to provide a better understanding of the world and culture in which Fashanu lived. Racist speeches from politicians of the 1960s, racist jokes in British television comedies, speeches from conservative British politicians of the '80s and '90s (including Margaret Thatcher and John Major) condemning homosexuality as an affront to "traditional values," and an incredibly ignorant comedy routine by Eddie Murphy are hard to watch. It makes one wonder how it might have been for Fashanu had he come up in relatively enlightened times. Overall, this is an engrossing documentary, tragic on so many levels, that is best for mature teens and up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about sports documentaries. How does Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story compare to other documentaries centered on sports? 

  • This documentary shows clips of speeches from politicians or comedians from the 1960s-1980s that revealed the racism and homophobia of English culture at that time. How do these clips help the viewer better understand the world Justin Fashanu grew up in? 

  • Do you think the movie was fair to Justin Fashanu? Why or why not?

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